One look at a symptom list for multiple sclerosis and you’d think twice before hiking up to an active volcano, trekking in the Himalayas, or traversing the Sahara desert. Balance problems, gait issues, numb feet, double vision, muscle weakness, spasticity, blah, blah. Which is exactly why a set of trekking poles--offering more flexibility and support than a single pole or cane--makes such sense for MSers. Hell, a pair of poles helped me complete the above adventures (in Costa Rica, Bhutan and Morocco). While walking staffs and canes are suitable for flat ground, trekking poles are especially adept at handling rough trails and hilly terrain--as well as the flats. By using both poles you are able to better distribute your weight, lightening the workload on your legs and reducing stress on your knees, feet, hip and back. In addition, less pressure and strain on your lower body means less fatigue, a critical issue many of us MSers face. Of course the largest benefit of trekking poles: they improve your stability and help you keep your balance.
WARNING: When you use your trekking poles in any situation other than on a hike, at some point, someone inevitably will make a smart-ass comment to you. "Buddy, I didn't know it was snowing." Smile and motor on. Or, if you must, reply with a comment about how you needed the poles just to trek through all of the dandruff flaking off his head, fake stumble, and then pop him in the groin with said pole.
Trekking poles kept me upright in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Trusty for Balance
Trekking poles have saved my behind (literally) on countless occasions. I discovered early in my MS diagnosis that when my right leg pretty much decided to take a vacation, I became immoble. But by using trekking poles to catch the numerous stumbles and better use my upper body strength to keep me upright, I could keep chugging despite a leg working at only 50% (if that).
I’ve also found that trekking poles are great on flat and hard surfaces as well. Just use rubber tips (all trekking pole manufacturers offer them as accessories or they come with the poles), and presto, you’ve got double the support of a single cane/staff. The downside in this scenario is that you lose a free hand, so it’s not as practical to use while, say, grocery shopping or getting up to get a bottle of beer from the couch (although folks report letting the pole hang by its strap to free up a hand).
And one last way to use your poles: during aerobic and leg exercises … even in your living room. Yup. I've done DVD exercise programs that would have been impossible without the stability of the poles. There's no way I could do lunges and many other exercises (even kickboxing) without tumbling over. Be forewarned, however, that wildly swinging poles could whack anything within pole distance (flower vase, delicate porcelain statuette, grandfather’s urn, or, oops, spouse). So be careful if you try this--the gym might be safer.
What to Look For
I’ve had the opportunity to put a number of popular trekking poles to the test from the leading makes: Black Diamond, Leki, REI and others. What I’ve discovered is that there are a wealth of options when it comes to trekking poles, and when you have a disease like multiple sclerosis, there's not one clear-cut design winner. I’ll list each area of the trekking pole that you should consider before making your purchase. But no matter what pole you choose, you'll be able to explore farther with a pair than without.
In the old days, circa 2010, you would painstakingly extend the trekking poles to the appropriate length and tighten them up, a process that took about a minute for a couple poles. But nowadays, manufacturers have developed a trick system (similar to tent poles) that has them ready roll in a matter of seconds. Actually, as fast as a second per pole. You snap out the pole and give it a tug, and presto you've got a walking aid perfect for wonky multiple sclerosis legs. Check out this video of how the Z-Pole from Black Diamond works to deploy so fast.
Considerations: If you use poles all or most of the time when you walk, this feature isn't essential. After all, your poles are already extended. But if you deploy your aids only when you overheat or your legs bonk, and collapse them when you recover, this is a huge timesaver. It's far more likely that you'll tote your poles if they can deploy in a blink. Otherwise, there's a good chance you'll leave them in the trunk of your car while running errands, which makes them pretty much useless when you suddenly discover you need them.
Trekking poles usually have three sections (some have just two) so when fully compacted down they can be easily stored. To use the poles, you expand them to the proper length and secure them into place. Now how they secure (or lock) is rather important, because if it doesn’t work properly (or you don’t have the strength or coordination to make it work properly), you could go down in a heap. On the end of the hike when your legs are gassed, and a lot of your body weight is being supported by the poles, that pole length has to hold. Many poles are secured by firmly twisting the sections of the pole in opposite directions using friction--the tighter you twist, the more reliable the hold. Some Black Diamond uses a “flick lock” system; a locking mechanism that you can visually see and forcefully lock. Leki offers both an internal lock and a speed lock system. The newest poles, like Black Diamond's Z-Pole, are like tent poles and lock out with a quick tug.
Considerations: This is where you need to get your rear end down to your local outdoor store to personally try the different locking mechanisms. I've found those that twist tend to be less reliable than those that physically lock. But that type require a touch more finger strength to operate. Easiest of all: the type that snap quickly to length, but that convenience comes at a cost.
Black Diamond's flick lock is super reliable.
In general, the heavier the poles, the more work you have to do to tote them, whether you are using them or not. All of the poles I've tested are relatively light and differed by a few ounces. But those ounces can add up over a long hike or if you keep them stashed in your oversized purse or man bag.
Considerations: Light is nice (and pricey), but if you tend to put a lot of force on your poles, a beefier, heavier duty pole is probably a wiser choice.
Travel Tips Remember that when traveling, it never hurts to have a doctor’s note explaining you have MS. If you don't, you still should be able to travel with them packed in your carry on if you explain they are a mobility device. Hiking/trekking poles are in a gray according to the TSA (ski poles are not allowed, however walking canes are). Don’t forget your rubber walking tips--you do not want to use the regular carbide tips on hard surfaces (like sidewalks). And if you are having a time fitting your poles into your luggage, you can take them completely apart (three sections per pole), which shaves off a couple inches. Another packing option: get a small, but long bag just for your poles, and many newer poles already come with a bag.
If you are like me, you like to travel. And if you travel, you should travel with your poles (and don’t forget the rubber walking tips!). Your trekking poles will come in handy in the mountains and on sidewalks--plus you can ditch one if you are going to be needing a free hand. The shorter the poles, the easier it will be to find a pack that fits them. That said, you need to make sure the poles extend long enough to accommodate your height. ActiveMSers does not recommend trekking poles with only two sections (not tested in this review), as they are too long to pack into luggage.
Considerations: Don't wait until you are hopping in your car to drive to the airport to discover they don't fit in your carry on. Pre-pack them first.
Rubber tips are essential for pavement. Some poles come with rubber tips.
Fitting Your Poles
Adjust your poles so that when standing, your elbow bends at a 90-degree angle, with both upper and lower sections being of about the same length. If the poles are adjustable, for long downhills lengthen the poles and, likewise, shorten for lengthy uphill sections.
How tall you are determines correct pole length.
Proper pole height.
It would be easy to overlook the grip and wrist strap, but that would be a mistake. Foam grips are the most comfortable type of grips in this reviewer’s opinion, easily besting rubber. Foam tends to be grippiest even with sweaty hands and offers more comfort. When it comes to the wrist strap, it is just as essential to the equation as the grip. Since they need to fit snuggly, nylon straps without padding tend to chafe on long hikes. Look for a soft lining, which will offer maximum comfort.
Considerations: Walk with them in the store. Some grips have a natural cant to them, which you may or may not find comfortable.
Note the forward cant of the Leki grips.
Use the Wrist Strap! To properly use the wrist strap, insert your hand through the bottom and "shake hands" with the grip--do not twist the hand. Also, do not put the hand in from the top, as this reduces the ability to weight the strap, which is especially important for MSers. Adjust the wrist strap so it fits snuggly and acts as a support (see photo). The wrist strap is NOT supposed to hang loose on the wrist; this will cause unnecessary fatigue of your hands and will not give you maximum support. This is the number one mistake when people use trekking poles, so don’t be like them. You are smarter than that.
Wrong. Too loose and entered strap from top.
The proper way to grip and fit your pole.
Trekking pole enthusiasts (yes, they exist) love to debate built-in shock systems. Some folks swear by them, others prefer a rigid pole. Pros: If you are walloping the earth with each step, the shock system can help prevent jarring and upper body fatigue, reducing stress on joints, muscles, and ligaments. This is especially true on pavement. Cons: Shock systems add weight, length, and expense to the poles, and tend to offer less feedback, so earth and brain might not be on the same wavelength.
Considerations: I've tested both shock and non-shock systems. If the pole was going to remain extended whenever you used them, and you pound them regularly on pavement or hard ground, I might opt for the shock. But if you plan to use the poles when your legs bonk, they'll probably be toted by you, collapsed. In that case, I would recommend the lighter, no-shock versions.
Leki's soft antishock system (SAS).
Single Pole Options For maximum benefit, ActiveMSers recommends two poles over a single pole. But sometimes, as stated above, that isn’t practical. Your single pole options include staffs and canes. Black Diamond offers staffs while REI and Leki make both (Leki actually offers a few versions). Active MSer Daryl of Illinois likes the staffs from Stoney Point (www.stoneypoint.com), which come with a wood knob or a y point (for steadying a hunting rifle). Lori, an active MSer from Wisconsin, likes the convenience of her folding cane (made by Medline, www.medline.com), where a press of a button can collapse the cane to only 12 inches for easy storage. Considerations: For balance while standing or walking on flat surfaces, the cane trumps the staff due to its style of grip, allowing you to put more support onto the cane. For hiking on hilly terrain, the staff trumps the cane, as it can be placed far in front of you, great for hilly descents. That said, you don’t usually need a free hand while hiking, so why not just use trekking poles in this scenario? So for single pole use, ActiveMSers recommends a cane. If used properly, it provides max support. And if you really want your single pole to do double duty, there are poles out there (again, Leki) that can be used as a cane or a staff, the best of both worlds.
Fitting Your Cane Stand up straight with shoes on and your arms at your side. The top of the cane should come up to the crease on the underside of your wrist. When using the cane, your elbow should be bent slightly, about 15-20 degrees.